A case for Pakistan

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Munter fronts up on the US need to look at terror war ally’s stability

For long Islamabad has complained, both in private and officially, how Washington does not appreciate the former’s stellar role in the war-on-terror enough. The grouse has fallen mostly on deaf ears.

What has compounded the lack of appreciation is the constant refrain to do more. During a visit to Pakistan in 2011, the-then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a hearty laugh when a Pakistani woman in the audience during a town hall meeting likened Washington’s patronising role to that of a “never satisfied mother-in-law.”

Hillary was so disarmed, she acknowledged the interesting simile and even joked she understood the grouse now that she was a mother-in-law herself. Somehow that powerful, even if humorous, metaphor has stuck with Islamabad feeling a bit like a hemmed in daughter-in-law! The humour was amplified given the ages of Hillary and her counterpart Hina Khar.

However, there’s one resonant, if unheeded, voice that fully appreciates Islamabad’s difficulties and who pleaded while in office with his own bosses in Washington to read the situation and embrace pragmatism.

He is Cameron Munter, the former US ambassador to Islamabad, who fell out with the State Department over the increased interference of Department of Defence in the region and eventually resigned.

Last week, he reiterated to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in a freewheeling interview that the US should also focus attention on the Pakistani nation, not just the war-on-terror.

Munter was ambassador during a particularly difficult time when the US-Pakistan relationship had become virtually dysfunctional following the US airstrike on a Pakistani check post that killed two dozen troops, leading to the closure of NATO supplies through Pakistan and the eviction of American personnel and aircraft from a Pakistani air base.

This, however, did not dampen his spirit and will to wade through the turbulent waters. But Munter often ran into trouble with how the Department of State had virtually ceded ground to the Pentagon and the CIA in dealing with Islamabad. He resented how the diktat was all about using force with little space for diplomacy.

Referring to a recent opinion poll that showed only eight per cent of Pakistanis viewed the US as a partner, while 74 per cent saw it as an enemy, Munter said: “I think it’s very important to look at these numbers and remember that what we’re talking about is a picture the Pakistanis have of us, that they see, in terms of our security policy,” Munter said.

However, while agreeing that it was important to engage in a robust counterterrorism regime, he said this needed to be upended by diplomacy. “We need to supplement those with the commitment to the Pakistani people and to their future, and to stability.”

That is something Pakistanis are convinced is not happening.

“We need to have more balance. We worked on it during my time there. I’ll be honest with you; I think we could have done a lot better. I think the Pakistanis could have done a lot better. I think the team that’s there now is trying to do that, to have more outreach, to have more long-term commitment to Pakistan and the needs they have in addition to what we have in counterterrorism.”

The ex-envoy also recalled how he used to receive calls from the White House to ‘dial up the pain’, and he would tell the US that Islamabad doesn’t respond well to ‘dialing up the pain.’

“Look, when you’re dealing with diplomacy, you’re dealing with the idea of listening as well as talking,” Munter said.

“A diplomat will want to make sure that, in addition to telling America’s story, we’re listening to the other person’s perception so we can come to some sort of agreement.”

In an earlier interview a few months after he left Pakistan, he disputed the assertion that he was against the use of drones.

“The use of drones is a good way to fight the war. But you’re going to kill drones if you’re not using them judiciously.” Munter thought the strikes should be carried out in a measured way. “The problem is the political fallout,” he says. “Do you want to win a few battles and lose the war?”

The Daily Beast reported last year Munter wanted a veto on drone strikes. Then-CIA director Leon Panetta saw things differently. Munter remembers one particular meeting where they clashed. “He said, ‘I don’t work for you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t work for you,’” the former ambassador was quoted as saying.

Sadly, not many Pakistanis realised while they were here that Munter was a rare US ambassador who not only understood the predicament his host nation faced with myriad of issues but right till the end when he had had enough with his administration, the envoy was making a passionate case about diplomatically engaging a country which had done so much for Washington at a huge cost.

The New York Times famously quoted him as complaining to his bosses that “he did not realize his main job was to kill people” – in reference to the huge number of casualties, including innocent women and children, that drone strikes claimed.

But perhaps, his biggest contribution was to keep the bilaterals afloat following the secret US Navy SEALS raid that took out Osama bin Laden and the Salala attack. The eventual, if grudging, “regret” offered by the US after a long impasse on NATO supply routes was owed in some part to Munter’s last stand.

The writer is Editor Pique Magazine based in Islamabad. He can be reached [email protected]

1 COMMENT

  1. Since majority of pakistanis hate USA (74%), munter the mutts suggestion of more $$$ for pakistan makes perfect sense! NOT!
    USA should completely disengage from pakistan for a decade, let pakis experience being a chinese concubine for 10yrs!

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